They gathered this past Sunday to celebrate the Maimuna festival at Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak.
A Sephardic tradition, Maimuna (also spelled Mimouna) is an end-of-Passover festival that is native to the Moroccan Jewish community and not well known in the United States.
Inspired by Rabbi Sara Rae Perman, members from her synagogue, Congregation Emanuel-El Israel in Greensburg, as well as Temple B’nai Israel and the two Monoeville congregations — Temple David and Parkway Jewish Center — gathered for storytelling, music and a special meal.
The origin of the word “Maimuna” is unclear, said Cantor Rick Berlin of Parkway Jewish Center, but some say that it acknowledges Maimonides’ father, who died at the end of Passover.
Regardless of the name, the celebration symbolizes, not only the end of Passover, but springtime, and carries a festive atmosphere. In Morocco, people open their homes to each other in a demonstration of unity, inviting each other inside to partake in a lavish dairy feast.
Like many other Jewish holidays, a major focus is on the food and its symbolism. Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David likened the seder and a Maimuna meal to the bookends of Passover.
“We are ending Passover with symbolism, as we began Passover,” Symons said.
There are parallels, she explained, between some foods on the seder plate and foods eaten during Maimuna.
For example, the egg on the Passover seder plate symbolizes life and fertility; there is also an egg on a Maimuna table as well as a live fish, which carries the same symbolism.
And the karpas on a seder plate parallels the greens at Maimuna. Flowers adorning the table are a further symbol of spring.
Maimuna is now celebrated in Israel regularly; some sources say it reflects the integration of Moroccan Jews into Israeli society.
Shoshana Halden, a member of Congregation Emanuel-El Israel and a native Israeli, compared it to St. Patrick’s Day. “On that day, everyone is Irish. On Maimuna, in Israel, everybody is Moroccan.”
The festivities on Sunday began when some of the spiritual leaders told stories of Moroccan Jewish folklore. Later, participants were treated to a musical performance by Cantor Rick Berlin’s sister, Julie Friedman, who sang Ladino folksongs. A rendition of “Cuando el Rey Nimrod,” a popular Ladino song, led to dancing and music making by some congregants.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the food. Berlin’s daughter, Katie Berlin, cooked a Middle (Eastern/Moroccan feast, reflecting some
traditional foods served during Maimuna. The table was laden with pita bread, hot and cold couscous, spicy tilapia, baba ganoush, twice-baked acorn squash topped with goat cheese and mint vinaigrette, chick pea salad and a Moroccan carrot salad. Dessert included Moroccan orange rice pudding and miflita (also spelled mufleta), a thin, crepe-like pancake dipped in honey that is both a symbol of sweetness and a return to eating leavened bread.
In keeping with Maimuna traditions, a “lucky dip” was also placed on the table: a bowl of flour with hidden “golden” objects on the bottom. And another plate contained eggs, fava beans and dates sitting on top of an abundance of flour.
Marsha Myerowitz of Temple David said she attended the Maimuna celebration because she was intrigued.
“I had never heard of it before,” she said. “And since I’m in the choir, I was especially interested in the music.”
This was not the first time that the four congregations have combined forces. Last year, they had a Passover program called “Beyond the Seder”; they have also come together for joint adult education sessions and an annual Selichot.
While there are no Sephardic synagogues in the Pittsburgh area, the American Sephardi Federation’s website lists about 130 such synagogues in the country, with the highest concentration being in New Jersey, New York, Florida and California. In Pennsylvania, there are only two Sephardic synagogues, both in Philadelphia.
Despite the absence of a significant Sephardic population in our area, Perman said it was important to acknowledge this Moroccan tradition.
“We understand that Judaism is not monolithic, nor has it ever been, and that there is not just one way of observing Judaism,” she said. “There are differences based not on just Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Judaism, but based on country of origin. We want people to realize that there are different and legitimate ways to be Jewish.”
Symons added, “Ultimately, this is the idea of ‘Am Yisrael’ — we are all one.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)